About once every two years, some bright spark comes up with the suggestion of forming a postgraduate society. They approach the Students' Association and some weary societies officer assures them that they are welcome to try, but then rattles off a list of dire warnings of failure and collapse, citing dozens of previous disasters and attempting to highlight pitfalls and problems. Our intrepid pioneers leave such a discussion with heavy hearts but full of grim determination to succeed where all others have failed.
Sure enough, Societies Faire comes round and thirty or so postgraduates sign up and promise to tell all their mates. For the first few months everything goes according to plan with events well attended by postgrads of all shapes aand sizes, some of whom have even paid their membership fees. Then the end of the year comes along and the committee members start coming under pressure for work from their supervisors. However despite all of this they make it through the whole year - much joy and celebration ensues.
The next year comes round and it turns out that the treasurer was a one year MLitt, and he's vanished off with the books. As though that weren't problematic enough the President has to write up this year and doesn't have time to run the society, but that crowd of thirty eager and enthusiastic members have dissipated like the morning mist as they have all left or are writing up, or are behind schedule, or their supervisor has been head hunted and they're leaving with them, (the list continues). Anyway the net result is that the society folds and nothing happens until a year later when some bright spark come up with the with the suggestion of forming a postgraduate society...
Now I realise that these problems may not be faced by institutions which have separate postgraduate unions or very large research communities. That said, I am sure that St Andrews is not alone in facing the problem that postgraduates do not have the time to spend organising extra-curricular activities that their junior counterparts have. Furthermore it is rather harder to assume commonality of interest since the range of students within the research community represents a greater diversity of backgrounds and more specialised academic interests.
It was, in fact, just this realisation that provided the key to solving the problem. Viewing the postgraduate community as being defined by what it is rather than what it does had meant that all previous attempts had degenerated into cliques based around certain departments or other social groups. We decided that we needed something that united the postgraduate community, other than their academic status. Of course the answer had been their all the time: free alcohol. With this simple realisation the rest of the process became easy. Instead of setting up an independent society and allowing it to run as though it were the History Society or the Chess Club or even the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Appreciation Society (I kid you not) the society was created as a quasi-autonomous part of the Students' Association itself. As a result it could receive a grant of thousands, rather than hundreds, and be supported by permmanent staff, thereby relieving the burden on office bearers.
The mission of the society also changed instead of "providing a forum for postgraduate students" -- it would now "Organise social events of particular interest to the research community". This ties in with the reality that PhDs, in particular, often have more in common with members of staff than they do with undergraduates. They are, all too often, teachers not taught, researchers not learners. Furthermore this approach allows all postgraduates to be members automatically, as the society is not dependant on them for funding. As a result the society has the wealth to organise events which its members may actually want to attend (God forbid), rather than ones that attract the friends of committee members on the basis that they ought to show support for such a worthy venture.
This does not, I admit, solve all the problems; it makes no headway against the fact that the postgrad community does not have an obvious home, but who knows it may in the future. Neither, more significantly, does it make much of an effort in pointing out to the University, and its composite departments, that they ought to be doing rather more for their research students than they are currently. Don't get me wrong, I don't think that St Andrews is any more or less guilty of this crime than most other institutions; all universities seem to feel that all the rewards this hard pressed gang of toiling proto-academics need is a departmental pigeon-hole and the distant hope of an office at the start of the next millennium, or perhaps the one after that.
If we're honest this is the level at which the problem lies; for all to many institutions (and here I mean universities not unions) there is their is a huge problem of defining what the postgraduate community is exactly. They carry an ever increasing teaching and research load but are not treated with the respect offered to staff. However, they are clearly do not share all of the same needs and inteerests as undergraduates. As the new(ish) NPC poster proclaims so boldly: there is no such thing as a typical postgraduate -- good point, well made. In the light of that assertion how is either a union or a university to cater for its postgraduate community?
A small number of institutions have started distinguishing between the academic and social requirements of their postgrad community, however even this is not enough. Unless we (both universities and stuudents' associations) start giving support to all students, taught and research alike, on the basis of what they want and need rather than basing our provision on crude academic groupings, we will make very little headway.